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Strong images of New York's street life

I had never heard of Cecil C. Bell (1906-70) until a little over a year ago. In a way, that's not surprising, since he was one of a dozen or so not-quite-famous artists who painted the street life of New York during the time of John Sloan, Reginald Marsh, Edward Hopper, and Raphael Soyer - and who were, unfortunately, upstaged by those better-known artists.

That he was very much an artist in his own right, however, was made very clear to me last year while leafing through a profusely illustrated book on his life and work. Bell's enthusiasm for life and for everything that partook of it was evident on every page.

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Here was life in the raw as he had seen and experienced it, painted in a manner that was direct, passionate, and unencumbered by fancy tricks. I had the impression - while looking at depictions of everything from subway crowds, boating and ice skating activities in Central Park, and Chinese New Year celebrations to street festivals, V-J Day in Times Square, and boys diving into the East River - that Bell drew and painted as spontaneously as others took snapshots with a camera.

Occasionally, however, that spontaneity couldn't quite hide Bell's tendency to be somewhat obvious in his drawing and color, and lean a bit too heavily on storytelling devices to make his point. Yet, overall, it didn't really matter, for his passions and loves, and his extraordinary ability to capture the obvious truth of a particular time and place, overwhelmed all else.

A good sampling of Bell's work is on view at Bernard & S. Dean Levy Inc., 981 Madison Avenue. Included are some of his more colorful and exuberant oils, several informal studies, and a number of sketches. While they indicate he was not on a level with Sloan, Marsh, or Hopper, they do make it very clear that his was an enthusiastic and wonderfully authentic voice. Show continues through Sept. 2.

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